"Today when I think of reentry court, I am reminded that nearly every offender sentenced to time in custody will return to the community from whence they came. And thus, every sentencing court is in fact, a reentry court, creating a pathway for the offender’s reentry into society." -Jeff Tauber

An Overview of a Court-Based Sentencing System

THE BEST OF:The Following Article , published on September 3, 2012, describes how a systemic sentencing model based on evidence-based principles might be structured   

 Find below a diagram and descriptive analysis of an Evidence-Based Sentencing System.

A 12 Part Series on Sentencing Systems, can be found under “SENTENCING SYSTEMS” (or by clicking on the diagram below)

 

AN OVERVIEW OF A SYSTEMIC SENTENCING MODEL   PDF

The diagram above can be thought of having two separate phases. The first (from “Plea” arrow to “Custody” arrow) focuses in on the need to effectively categorize, sentence, and track offenders, with a minimum of staff and resources. Tracks are essential to the system as the court will sentence and monitor offenders with very different risks and needs. A sentencing team with a different skill set is required to deal with low risk and diversion participants than with high risk and violent offenders (as a different team skill set would be required for Drug Court as opposed to Domestic Violence Court).

We know from the scientific literature that mixing low and high-risk offenders is counter-productive at best. That same dynamic works in the courtroom. Where possible, it’s best to keep participants with different risk levels apart. It’s also more cost-effective. Why have full staff at every session when you can substantially reduce the number of staff by sorting offenders by risk and need. When you create a participant track with few housing, job, or family issues, experienced staff in those areas can best use their time elsewhere. The savings would be substantial if case managers are designated to be in court once a week for a single track, rather than required to attend daily sessions

The second part of the diagram (from “Front End Jurisdiction” through Front End Reentry Court”) focuses on the potential for an “Early Intervention”. We focus on the front end because almost all states give their courts a window to recall the felon from prison within a relatively short time period  (typically 4 to 12 months).  Where courts are willing to use their statutory authority, serious and/or high-risk offenders can complete a rehabilitation program over a short jail or prison term and avoid a long prison sentence. The opposite is true for felons sentenced to long prison terms (or even medium terms of 1 to 3 years). In most states, there is relatively little opportunity for a court to exercise authority over the “Back End”, as the felon, typically returns to the community under state supervision.

Decision Making in a Sentencing System

Offender Tracks are normally the province of Probation or other supervisory agencies. When used at all, they reflect internal decisions in determining the level of supervision and treatment appropriate for a probationer.  With validated Risk/Needs Assessments available, the final decision as to court related tracks ought to be left to the court, based upon the recommendations of the full sentencing team.

Court tracking is essential to keep offenders with similar risk and needs together, maximizing the opportunities for building positive relationships with the court and participants and limiting the negative consequences of mixing offenders with different risk levels.  The court will need to schedule tracks when required staffing and resource personnel are present. Optimally, the only personnel present at all sessions will be the judge, clerk, and court manager. Review below the process and procedures:

a. A risk assessment is completed even before sentencing and optimally before a plea is taken so all parties will have an understanding of the sentencing issues early on. (Ideally, the level of treatment/rehabilitation or appropriate track designation should not be the subject of a plea agreement).

b. An individual may be given the opportunity to accept pre-plea Diversion (often called District Attorney’s Diversion). Once a complaint is filed, the court has substantial control over pre-plea and post-plea felony Diversion, as well as pre and post-plea Problem-Solving Courts. A Diversion or Problem Solving Court judge typically takes a plea, sentences the offender, monitors the offender over the course of the program (including in-custody progress), and presides over their graduation from the program.

c. The lead judge (or a designee) takes the plea in most other felony cases, reviewing the risk/needs assessment already completed, and sentences the felon either to probation or prison (if the offense is violent or the offender a danger to the community). If the offender is appropriate for probation , the sentencing judge will decide whether the felon should be placed in a low, medium or high risk supervision track. Depending on the number of offenders and resources available, there could be sub-tracks within each risk category (when offender’s needs differ substantially in criminogenic attitudes and beliefs, gender concerns, drugs or alcohol problems, mental health issues, housing, job and/or education needs, and family/ parental issues)

1. Low risk offenders; Probation (banked file): Where the offender is neither a risk to society or has special needs, the court might see the offender once, shortly after probation placement, focusing the offender’s attention on probation compliance, and only see the felon again, if there is a substantial change of circumstances (note: Diversion contacts are often as minimal).

2. Medium risk offender, Probation (straight community corrections); Where the offender has a medium risk of re-offending and has special criminogenic needs, the felon would be placed in a track on a regular court schedule. Compliance in this track would require completion of cognitive behavioral and other rehabilitation services, with compliance resulting in substantial incentives and rewards. Compliance will allow the court to back off from contacts with probationers (unless changed circumstances or graduation)

3. High Risk offender, Probation (often a substantial jail term); Intensive supervision requirements might include attending court sessions on a weekly basis (remaining in court until all participants have been seen), a minimum of twice weekly contacts with a case manager, intensive cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, and pro-social activities for at least 40 hours per week (for at least 90 days)

Reducing Prison terms through Front-End Sentencing

 The second half of the diagram represents the use of alternatives to prison terms, allowing us to use an evidence-based sentencing system as a means to keep serious (but non-violent) offenders from serving long prison terms.

The front-end of a prison sentence provides the only substantial opportunity a court has to effect a prison term, once a felon is sentenced. Few courts use that statutory authority to return the felon from prison. When used at all, the authority is often applied in by individual judges in a non-systemic fashion.

“Front-End Systemic Approaches” to long prison terms described here present an opportunity to use graduated sanctions rather than immediate prison sentences for serious, but not-violent offenses. Such Front-End Systems can be structured in different ways. Some courts may include non-prison sentences (typically county jail or community corrections programs) as part of an “alternatives to prison” system.

Systemic approaches to “Front-End Alternatives to Prison” might start with a Community Corrections level alternative sentence. With new offenses and/or serious violations of probation, they might move up to a county jail alternative, and finally to a short-term prison sentence in lieu of a long-term prison sentence. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, an offender might start a  ”Front-End” Intervention at any of the three levels.

A.  Community Corrections Sentence in lieu of Prison: Less often used than other alternatives, this community based alternative to prison (typically residential treatment or correctional housing while an offender receives education, job training or employment), allows the judge to closely follow the offenders participation in a community based program, providing incentives or sanctions as appropriate. With successful program completion, the participant is returned to the community to continue supervision and rehabilitation under court authority. [Note: this alternative can be the first of two used before the offender is ordered to serve any prison sentence]

B. County Jail Alternative: This second tier “Front End Prison Alternative” can better emphasize the risk that the felon has of being sent to prison. Like the “Community Corrections Alternative, the County Jail Alternative allows close monitoring by the sentencing judge, appropriate incentives and sanctions, and a return to the community for further court supervision.

C. Front-End Prison Term: This ought to be thought of as a felon’s last opportunity to avoid a long prison term. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, some jurisdictions will start the Front-End Sentencing process with a prison term (skipping over possible Community Corrections and County Jail level interventions), hopefully reducing a long term sentence to a relatively brief 4 to 12 months in prison, and returning the felon to the community to complete the sentence under court supervision.

High Risk Offenders Do Better IN Half-Way Houses

THE BEST OF: The following article, initially published on April 4, 2010, makes clear the “Risk Principle”, that establishes that high risk offenders do significantly better in correctional programs than low to medium risk offenders.

 Reentry Courts, like other problem-solving courts, suffer from the reluctance of criminal justice practitioners and government leaders, to accept empirically established Evidence Based Practices. For example, some criminal justice practitioners have long been resistant to working with difficult high risk offenders that many programs are designed for, and  instead use “risk assessments” to  limit their programs to less challenging low risk offenders. Professor Edward Latessa of the University of Cincinnatti, a national expert on residential correctional programs, has been at the forefront of the struggle to move criminal justice professionals and government leaders toward the adoption of Evidence Based Practices. To that end, he has written of the difficulties of changing criminal justice practices and policies  to reflect established Evidence Based Practices (see Prof. Latessa’s comments).

Now comes a  University of Cincinnati study, finding that low risk offenders have comparatively higher recidivism rates coming out of Ohio’s Residential Corrections Programs (such as half-way houses) than moderate to high risk offenders.  The new data confirms  their previous 2006 study (and the work of many other researchers). Their research reflects the well established “Risk Principle”, that offenders should be provided with supervision and treatment that are commensurate with their risk levels.

Professor Latessa points out that it is a waste of scarce resources to put low risk offenders into programs when they don’t need them, and when they would often do better and offend less at home, on probation or other limited monitoring protocols. [It should be noted that risk is not necessarily related to the seriousness of the offense committed, but the risk that the offender will reoffend].

Professor Lessora explains that  low risk offenders have the connections to home, school, job, family and friends that define them as low risk, and enterring a  residential corrections program can damage those connections, increasing their chances of reoffending.   Further, that when housed together in residential corrections programs, high risk offenders often corrupt and influence the low risk offenders, once again increasing their recidivism rate. On the other hand, the recently released data shows moderate to high risk offenders often take advantage of the services and treatment offered at residential corrections programs, significantly lowering their recidivism rates; a good reason to challenge  conventional wisdom, and carefully examining the applicability of Evidence Based Practices to your reentry court.

Systemic Approaches to Sentencing: Part 3

April 16, 2012

Part 3: The ‘Specialty Sentencing Court” as a Problem-Solving System

 

The idea that sentencing courts ought to be special and distinct entities is not a new one. There are and have been many urban jurisdictions that deal with sentencing and/or probation violations with full time specialty courts. As with the early drug courts of the 1980s, the purpose of special sentencing/probation courts is often to streamline the process and move the offender through as quickly as possible. Concern for how the offender can be best prepared for a return to community with appropriate supervision and/or treatment was and is often overlooked (click on the image on the left for “Reentry Drug Courts”National Drug Court Institute Monograph Series, No. 3, “Reentry Drug Courts”, JTauber, circa 1999).

Existing sentencing or probation courts should have the responsibility to do more. Like other problem-solving court systems, Sentencing and/or Probation Courts need to create a bond between offender and the court, that among other things, reminds both of their obligations, one to the other. Special Sentencing Court Systems need to deliver evidence-based sentencing practices, processes too complex and demanding for even the most dedicated individual judge. ( “Arming the Courts with Research: Ten Evidence Based Sentencing Initiatives to Control Crime and Reduce Costs”, a PEW monograph, Judge Roger Warren, ret.)

The best Problem-Solving Sentencing Courts will supervise thorugh separate tracks, as do most problem-solving courts in large urban jurisdictions. The Drug, Mental Health, and DUI Courts, though often presided over by the same judge, separate out the offender by the nature of the problem that the offender faces. Though the offender may have more than one serious issue, different problems call for different resources, information, staffing and treatment.

The Veterans Court provides a particularly good model for the Sentencing judge in smaller jurisdictions The Veterans Court has relatively few participants (typically less than 50), and is able to deal with the “Whole Person”. An individual is directed to the Veterans Court because he or she is faced with a criminal case, not because they have a particular issue or problem. The Veteran’s Court is prepared to deal with any and all issues facing the Veteran. To that extent, the Veteran’s court is a particularly good model for a “sentencing court”. The Veterans court mets out appropriate responses, as  a sentencing courts should, dealing with many different issues, and providing the appropriate supervision and services as required.

 The next segment will look at the importance of the judge in sentencing and monitoring supervision

© 2007 -  Reentry Court Solutions. All Rights Reserved.


Reentry Court Solutions Powered by Communications Team